Back to School

Back to School

Last Friday was the first day of the year where it felt like fall. I saw brown leaves on the ground and whistling down the street on my way to work. I wore layers for the first time since winter. The air was not just chilly; it was the autumn kind of chilly, the kind that holds promises for more tantalizing days, for harvests, for darkened evenings and blustery afternoons.

I walk into stores and I see back to school banners and notebooks for seventeen cents. Along with the mellow hues of the season come the bright block colors of new pencils, crayons, and paper. Along with the chill of the air comes the thrill of going back to familiar classrooms or starting the same routine somewhere new.

I’ve been trying to stay off social media, but when I do check for work purposes, I see posts from my friends excitedly preparing for their second, third, and final years at college, or gearing themselves up for grad school.

This is the first year in four that I am not joining them. It wasn’t going to be originally, but it’s how it ended up playing out.

**

Applying for and being accepted into Alverno’s Master’s Program in Counseling and Community Psychology has been one of my proudest accomplishments. I walked through so many months with that happy success under my belt, excited that I had concrete plans to share with anyone who asked me what I would be doing after graduation.

I’d always worried about the transportation piece. I still don’t have my driver’s license; though even if I did, the idea of the three-hour drive through highways and city streets terrifies me. Taking the Greyhound wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially if it’s to further my education in a field I was really excited about. At that time, I wanted my counseling license as soon as possible; I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get an impactful enough job without it.

I was determined not to move to Milwaukee, either, though many of my friends and advisors suggested that I do. I didn’t want to leave behind the many connections I’d worked hard for in my city. I didn’t want to leave my current job—if there was even a chance of my ability to return.

Besides, I didn’t have the resources to make such a dramatic move. I had nowhere to live there, and no knowledge of the safest places to live there. I didn’t have the money it would take to make the move.

So I waited knowing something was going to work out—I just had to figure out what.

Three weeks after graduation—three weeks of being homeless, living out of my car, and couch surfing—I got my current job. Originally I’d applied to the place as a part-time daycare teacher, just looking for anything to get me through the summer. But once I submitted my application and resume, I received a reply just a few hours later, asking me to apply for a different position: Youth Program Coordinator.

When I read the job description I was elated and apprehensive. It seemed too difficult for my current capabilities. I wasn’t sure I was up to that much commitment, that much work. Was I qualified? Should I even bother? It would be my first full-time job, my first professional position.

But the title—“youth program coordinator”—spoke to me. The descriptions of the position working with youth and families and developing programming for them excited me on a level I hadn’t felt before. This could be a bridge into exactly what I wanted to do.

I applied and was invited for a phone interview. At the end of the call we scheduled a face-to-face interview for the following week. At that interview, I talked with the childcare supervisor, CEO, and CFO. I was intimidated; and yet they were all so friendly, inviting, and encouraging. They saw my foot bouncing with excitement, they saw my eager smiles as they described what I would do. I saw their looks of satisfaction when I described my experiences and passion.

They said they’d been looking to fill the position for a few months, and had hoped to have it filled by now. But they were waiting for the right person.

The next day I received an email inviting me to fill the position.

I was the right person.

**

All summer I worked on programming, connections, fundraising, relationship building, planning, organizing, and assisting with anything in my realm. It’s the most intensive and exciting job I’ve ever had. I feel more confident and at home than I have in years, except maybe for my position in the after-school program.

All of my experiences cumulate into this position. I’m reminded daily how good I am at what I do, and my supervisor has mentioned more than once how happy they were that they’d waited for me.

“You’re the one for this job,” she tells me. “This is you.”

I didn’t really think about Alverno until August had already begun. I’d applied before my legal name change; I realized I had yet to change my name in the system.

I realized that Milwaukee was more of a commute than I was prepared for.

I realized that counseling wasn’t what I needed right now.

**

I formally withdrew from Alverno the day before Orientation. Numerous phone calls after numerous days putting them off lead to two unanswered voicemails from my advisor and, finally, a request to receive the withdrawal in writing. It took me longer than it should have to send the email because I was full of regret. But when I got the reminder on my phone because I forgot to delete it, I felt some relief that I didn’t have to drive hours this morning or take the greyhound all Friday afternoon to get there. Besides, I wouldn’t miss the last day of camp for anything.

Earlier that month my supervisor had pointed me in the direction of UW-Milwaukee’s online Master’s Program in Community Engagement and Education. I applied experimentally and was accepted two weeks before classes started. I was excited; it was even closer to what I wanted to do, and I wouldn’t have to make the terrifying drive or sacrifice every other Friday afternoon to bus rides.

A few days later I received a call from the residency office telling me I was not an established Wisconsin resident and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition. I had to establish residency first. Despite having been a Wisconsin resident almost all of my life; despite having parents who had been Wisconsin residents for decades; despite receiving a degree at a public University in Wisconsin; despite having a valid Wisconsin state ID; despite owning a car registered in Wisconsin; despite having filed Wisconsin income taxes for the past three years.

“So, which state do I have residency in instead?” was the question I wanted to spit out, but never asked out loud.

I called them back and they told me the only way to prove my Wisconsin residency was to get tax documentation from my parents.

My gut dropped when I thought of the months-long tax battle I’d only recently gotten over. I told the caller that this was not an option for me. That they had basically disowned any commitment to me.

“But look at it this way,” he said. “You’re getting an education to better yourself. I’m sure they’ll want to help you do that.”

I thought of my dad’s furious reactions when I said how much I liked college and how much I was learning; his bitter conversations with my mother on how horrible this college experience was for the family. I thought of his sharp email asking me where I was going to get money for the Study Abroad trip I wanted to take. Their refusal to grant me even grocery money. Withholding vital documents and information I needed.

No, sir, they do not want me to succeed.

“They have proven to me several times that they will not do anything to help me,” I said as calmly as I could.

He relented and told me I could appeal. I groaned inwardly at the amount of work I’d have to do and hoops I’d have to jump through to in order to file the appeal. It was a week before classes started, and there was no guarantee my appeal would go through.

My only other option was to sustain myself financially for a year without attending school. It was stupid, but the easiest and most feasible option.

I contacted the registrar, and they delayed my enrollment until the fall of next year. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was the same day I sent in my official withdrawal from Alverno.

**

At the same time, I sigh at the bittersweet knowledge I will not be returning to the familiar classrooms, not joining my friends in the exhilarating scramble for fresh school supplies. But then I see my kids at work preparing themselves for the upcoming quarter, and feel the same excitement I felt at the end of last summer. I look at my plans for my programs in the public schools and feel the same shivers in my chest.

The thrill of gathering notebooks and binders for myself can wait.

Now I’m preparing myself to set out on a new adventure, where my learning doesn’t come from books and papers; where I’m the one writing the curriculums and presenting them to classrooms. I’ve been an educator and even a teacher before. But this is the first time it’s my full-time job, and this is the first time that the programs I’m a part of are my own.

The same day I withdrew form one school and confirmed the date of my enrollment for another was the last day of camp. I said goody-bye to some of my campers. For those who are returning for our school-year programs, I tease them with hints at what I have planned for them. I can’t wait to get them involved in the projects and activities I have in store. All my preparation over the past few months has been leading me towards those moments.

It’s been a great summer, and it’s going to be a great fall.

 

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

On Monday I was planning suicide. I woke up with a grim determination that it was time for my life to be over. I felt nothing. Not when my roommate said good morning. Not when my friend walked to work with me. Not when I taught Safe Ally Training to a bunch of wonderful people with one of my closest friends. Not when I tutored one of my own students, not when my boss joked around with me. I was wearing the mask my mother had taught me to use after years of her isolating me when I showed emotion.

I laughed. I smiled. I engaged in conversation. I was productive. But inside I was numb, burnt out by pain and loneliness and self-hatred. Inside I was convinced my friends had never really loved me, that my close friends would soon cease to love me. Inside, I was ready to die.

A few friends reached out. Noticed I was upset. I felt nothing. I went through the motions. I counted the hours till I could escape.

I thought of asking for help. Calling Crisis.

It never occurred to me to tell a friend. Never occurred that there were people who cared. I was convinced no one did.

I decided to go to work first. The last job of the day. My kids.

As I got ready to go, thoughts of self-preservation left in favor of writing out a will. I left my wallet, my money, and my cards on my desk. I5 gave my cat extra food, extra love. I snuggled the bunnies that didn’t like me. I conversed briefly with my roommate’s boyfriend, pretending I was invested, pretending I wasn’t about to leave and never come back.

When my ride dropped me off after work, I decided, I’d walk away and never come back. I’d find a bridge. I’d jump. It would all be over.

I wore my mask all the way there. Engaged in pleasant conversation with my ride. No one was allowed to see what was going on inside me.

I went through the motions at work. Laughed with my co-workers. Pretended everything was fine. They had no idea.

Then it was time to check in my kids.

I walked into the room where I was supposed to be to check in my 12 kindergartners. Incidentally, the teacher had let them out early today. Over half of them were already there, and they were looking for me. Under the table. Around corners.

They yelled my name when they saw me, and one ran into me for a hug. Several asked where I had been. I laughed and told them I hadn’t known they were there.

“Were you worried I wouldn’t come?” I asked one of the more vocal kids.

He tilted his head in consideration, then shook it definitively. “No, I knew you would be here,” he said.

That’s when the feeling came–for the first time–guilt. Worry. Regret.

How could I leave these kids behind?

I heard them saying my name with enthusiasm. I saw their excitement at seeing me. I saw their pure joy when they received new shoes as part of the programming for the day. I witnessed their sadness and fatigue when they encountered difficulties during the day. I listened to their needs and allowed them to skip homework. Instead, we played quiet games and colored pictures until it was time to go home.

I smiled and laughed with the parents, telling them about their child’s day, saying goodbye to the kids and hearing them chatter excitedly about what they had done and how excited they were to come back.

What was I thinking? I couldn’t leave my kids behind.

I rode back with my ride, in silence this time. I loved my kids. But I couldn’t shake what I had been feeling all day. I made a deal with myself: if she dropped me off in the parking lot, I’d run and find a bridge. If she walked back to the building with me, I’d make up some story about “forgetting” my ID and let her let both of us in.

But when she dropped me off at the parking lot, I walked back to the apartment slowly, and thought about the kids–would they miss me on Wednesday if I was not just late, but really and truly not there?

What about the class I mentored for? They were coming over on Tuesday. Maybe I could still around at least until then.

A stranger let me into my building. I knocked on my apartment door, and my roommate let me in. i bluffed it off. Pretended I’d forgotten. I was just tired. Went to bed.

Her friends came over and I went back and forth, trying to be social, trying to convince people I was fine. But I’d always retreat back into my room, feeling like crying but at the same time too numb to do anything but lie there.

No matter how many times my roommate asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t say anything. I was just sick, I lied, just tired. I didn’t know why I was so sad. There was no reason. I kept the mask on.

Tuesday morning it was the same. I skipped my 8am class. Too sick, I convinced myself, even though it was only a small cold I’d been living with.

I got up ad went to work again. Tutoring. I joked around. But inside I was seething. This time I was angry–angry at absolutely everything and everyone. I even hated being queer. I hated everything about myself and my life. I wasn’t looking forward to anything, I was just sticking around to do what I felt was necessary before I took the next step, whether that was suicide or calling crisis.

My supervisor decided for me. I stormed into the Pride Center, ranting about something or other. She asked me what was wrong. Said I didn’t look like myself.

I told her I wanted to die, but I kept waiting until my commitments were over, but they never were. I was living hour to hour with suicidal thoughts and it was only a matter of time before I did something.

She said, “You need to talk to someone.”

I said, “I know, I will, after tonight.”

She said, “No, I think you should talk to somebody right now.”

I pushed back a few more times. I needed to go to class. To see my students. To attend the club meeting for which I was co-president. Eventually she won.

“Should I see someone on campus?”

They would just tell me to go to Crisis, so I may as well just get a friend to drive me there and skip the police car.

Another friend was there and gave me a few pointers. What to look for. Where to go. I texted some friends, asking who was available to drive me. Within seconds my roommate replied, telling me to meet her outside the Union.

I gathered my things and walked outside. My numbness was wearing off as the situation became more real. Why was I doing this? Why was I so scared? Why did no one trust me to stick around?

I’d had the training. I should know.

I wanted to die.

I wanted to die, and my friends were trying to keep me safe.

Even if that meant going away . Even if that meant being processed by strangers.  Even if that meant admitting that I was a danger to myself.